Reviewed by Chris Faatz
Lots of anarchist writing is pretty thin going. The constant reiteration of the same mantra-like assertions, the same insights, and the same proposed solutions, all confined to a given community, a holding tank of acceptable ideas, with the whole dedicated to knocking down straw men of the polemicist's construction. Unceasingly. It gets old fast.
Imagine, then, how excited I was to find a book of essays that addresses subjects outside the narrow confines of accepted anarchist orthodoxy, a book that further investigates the work of major writers from a distinctly libertarian perspective and holds forth from an unfailingly utopian point of view on broad issues germane to the past 40 years, such as nuclear disarmament and the role of freedom of thought in a free society. Such a book is Nicolas Walter's Damned Fools in Utopia: And Other Writings on Anarchism and War Resistance.
Walter was a mainstay of the British anarchist movement for most of his life, and these beautifully crafted essays and reflections cover the years from about 1960 to 2000, when he died. The core of this book embraces the early years of his engagement and loosely focuses on the British movement for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Its radical wing, the Committee of 100 (of which Bertrand Russell was a member), garners special attention, with its decentralist and libertarian thrust. The Committee's purpose was to sponsor acts of mass civil disobedience. What, though, did they stand for? Walter writes (in 1962):
Our end is familiar now. Most people who support the Committee of 100 also support the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, because the two wings of the unilateralist movement have no quarrel about ends, and in general we accept the decisions of CND annual conferences. We want Britain to ban the Bomb and leave NATO, to disengage from the Cold War and adopt positive neutralism, to reject colonialism abroad and racialism at home. Many of us go further than this. Because of our sympathy with friends in America we favor American as well as British unilateralism, and because of our left-wing political affiliations we favor radical or revolutionary solutions to the problems of our society.
This is a radical formulation designed to speak to a much broader audience than does a sectarian political polemic. It offers up a vision and a hope to motivate broad swathes of people and does so without putting one group or set of ideas forward as the one true path to freedom. How refreshing!
The mainstay of the book is the title essay, a history of war resistance and of radical and unequivocal pacifism and nonviolence in the face of the war-making state. It's a wonderful essay, full of stories, anecdotes, and quotes -- from and about sources as diverse as Alex Comfort, George Fox, and Henry David Thoreau -- and is divided into such sections as anti-militarism, conscientious objection, and satyagraha ("soul force," as developed by Mohandas Gandhi).
The gist of this essay -- indeed, the gist of the whole collection -- is that the only way to remain truly human in an age of mass conformity and brutal violence is to take a stand on the side of conscience, to refuse to be complicit in the brazen, insane, and ultimately dehumanizing thrust of the modern warfare state and its tendency to wriggle its tentacles into all spheres of our lives. There is an alternative, asserts Walter; there is another way of living and being that embraces our mutual humanness and raises high the banner of unqualified solidarity in confronting the agents of fear, oppression, and hatred in a world gone mad.
The sheer number of essays on literary, political, and publishing figures, both well- and unknown, makes this volume all the more compelling. A long essay on Orwell is here, examining him in connection with his relationship with the anarchist movement. Dorothy Day's here, too, the great Catholic anarchist of inner city New York, and her life of "poverty, chastity, and disobedience." Also represented are Herbert Read and author Allan Sillitoe (who Walter loved). Some of the most interesting pieces are those addressing the more bizarre and fringe activists in the British anarchist movement, such as Guy Aldred and C. W. Daniel. The Greek-French post-Marxist and libertarian socialist theorist Cornelius Castoriadis makes an appearance, as does Bertrand Russell and even Lady Di.
There's plenty here to feed the hunger of even the most committed student of sectarian minutiae, though I want to make it perfectly clear that Walter does not write primarily for that audience. His essays are brilliant and scintillating because they're crafted with skill and beauty and because they're sympathetic to the human reality that lies behind even the most bizarre, outre, or strange.
Interestingly enough, Walter was also a long-time habitue of the British Freethought and Humanist movements. I, personally, think it's a shame that there's virtually nothing in this collection that relates to his labors at those tasks, although the book does include a remarkably thoughtful short essay on "Anarchism and Religion."
Damned Fools in Utopia is full of grand ideas and formulations. In the end, though, it's a book of vision, an assertion that another world is possible. Walter was pessimistic as to the probability of that world's coming about; he was, however, insistent on its necessity, on the obligation of its iteration. Damned fools in utopia: may we all have the courage to stand up and proclaim ourselves such.
Books mentioned in this post